What is an urban experiment? Presenting the “Green Light for Midtown” program

In general terms, an experiment is something that you do for either validate or reject a hypothesis. That something is an organized and controlled procedure that should be able to be replicated in a similar scenario following a specific set of instructions. But experiment is not an easy concept. When we talk about doing an experiment we have to put generalizations away and going to to the specific. There are different magnitudes, levels, and logics involved in an experimental process, some of them are even challenging the general definition of this particular notion.

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The free-WIFI experiment

Times Square is a fragile place. In 2016 a solitary homeless man was caught watching porn using the tablet of a free WIFI kiosk located around the Square. Immediately the news made a big echo of this issue tracing an imaginary relationship between this man and the recent past of the zone, the one before its renovation. A tourist interviewed by the New York Post was complaining about the situation saying that right now Times Square was much worse than in the ’70s because at least at that time the porn was indoors. 

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Four vignettes of horses in the Square

One hour before midnight, sometimes earlier, some carriages are going to Times Square for working there. This activity is still legal in New York City, despite a few attempts for banning it (Neuman, 2017Gould, 2018), and after 11:30 pm until three in the morning, it is allowed around the Square. During that period, the street traffic is considerably slower, and the night, plus the LED lights shining in the sky, are the best artificial scenario for a romantic view of skyscrapers, ads, stores, and tourists, riding a possible tired and stressed animal. 

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The chess player

I saw him was by casualty. He was reclining on one of the granite benches near the TKTS booths. It was Monday’s night at the beginning of September, and the Square was full of people, but next to him was a free spot. I went there and I sat at his side. I did not talk with him, and I am pretty sure that he was not aware of my presence. He was busy, looking around for something. His outfit was the first thing that caught my eye. He was wearing a bowler hat, a white t-shirt, an opened white-blue squared shirt, black pants, and impeccable white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. A yellow bag on the ground, from M&M’s World, store located two blocks far from us, was completing the whole attire. 

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Expanding a corner in Times Square. First approach

Around seven and a half in the morning, a man dressed red is dragging a kind of metal rack with wheels around the northern part of Duffy Square. The rack contains twenty-two chairs and sixteen tables. All of them are metal painted red. He stops near the TKTS booths and starts to organize first the tables and then the chairs. Two chairs per table. It looks like he knows by heart the exact position where each table should go. Patiently, table by table, he organizes them into two imaginary beelines of four tables and eight chairs each. Then, a little bit more to the south, he repeats the same activity one more time. 

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The Project for Public Spaces

The transformation of Times Square from a car-land to a sight of the walkable public space is the result of a process based on pedestrianizing Broadway that occurred during the Bloomberg mayoralty. In a brief sense, the portions of Broadway Avenue crossing Times Square and Herald Square were eliminated from the City’s traffic system, changing their use and meaning, displacing the vehicular hegemony in the area. 

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Looking for a locality. Working on transitions in Times Square (I)

Transition studies in STS (Elzen et al. 2004; Geels, 20022010Grin et al. 2010) have a preference and a solid background on Large-scale and long-term technological issues in contexts of crisis. (See, for example, low-carbon transition in a situation of climate crisis: Steward, 2012Xiang-Wan, 2016Geels et al. 2017Geels, 2018Roberts et al. 2018). Nevertheless, there are two main perspectives inside this new intellectual tradition: “There are historical studies of completed socio-technical transitions (and) there are studies of current societal changes.” (Darnhofer, 2015)

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Why Times Square?

Why Times Square? That is a ubiquitous question that people ask me every time I used to talk about the study object of this piece of research. Times Square now, the current version we have of this place, looks like a location where one cannot find anything serious for conducting an academic piece of research. It seems like an infertile field utterly dependent on external forces, but at the same time, an exhausted and packed and sealed one under the label of either gentrification-Disneyfication or the official one of revitalization. The usage of each one of those two terms depends on who is telling the story of this site. However, in both versions, Times Square appears like a finished object, a black boxed location without so much to offer.

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Diluting Citizenship. A first approach to the Smart City concept

The vignettes of the Coca-Cola 3D Billboard and the WIFI kiosks are sharing some common elements, besides the obvious point that they can be traced in the Times Square of my piece of research. Those elements can be gathered into a context of “experimentation in urban places.” (Gieryn, 2006Karvonen & van Heur, 2014Silver & Marvin, 2016) This particular conception of experimenting in either “cities” or “urban locations” is nowadays a global trend, presented sometimes in the shape of “smart city,” and that involves many different actors, conceptions, capitals, and processes. 

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Lights still on

It was almost midnight, and the air was unusually cold due to some sporadic showers during the night. I was seated on a concrete bench in front of an empty and under remodeling spot between Broadway Avenue and W. 47th Street. After midnight, when the area is less transited, a group of workers starts its shift that consists in adapting and restyling the bare commercial place for a new branch of Swarovski. During the day, the construction remains closed. However, at nights, and despite the work is carried out inside, one can see from the sidewalk the lights and sparks going out of the welding machine, as well as the men doing their handiwork. 

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